By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Aislinn Laing
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile's President Sebastian Pinera on Monday signed off on a referendum to be held on a new constitution, which he vowed would generate a "solid, compassionate and legitimate framework" that would help reunify the country after nine weeks of intense protest over inequality and elitism.
Pinera said the plebiscite, which was approved by Congress last week and is to be held next year, would kickstart a process of "broad and effective citizen participation."
"It is of the utmost importance to recover the value of unity, of dialogue, of agreements, especially with those who think differently," he added.
Chileans will on Sunday April 26 decide whether they want a new constitution and if they do, whether the body that draws up the new document should be a popularly elected assembly or one mixed with current lawmakers.
The country's current constitution dates back to General Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 military dictatorship and, critics say, fails to guarantee proper healthcare, education and citizen participation in government.
The scrapping of the old constitution emerged as one of the main demands of protesters who have mobilized across the country over the two months.
A poll by Cadem last month suggested that 82% of Chileans believe the country needs a new constitution and 60% want it drawn up by a popularly elected assembly, compared with 35% who want a mix with politicians.
The president said he hoped the new constitution "should serve to leave behind the violence and divisions that we have seen resurface with pain and sadness during these days".
On Friday a demonstration brought chaotic scenes in Santiago's central Plaza Italia rallying point, where an estimated 1,500 demonstrators clashed with as many as 1,000 police officers, resulting in a 20-year-old protester being run over by a police armored vehicle.
(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Dan Grebler)